Watts: All That Glitters

Nov 5, 2018

I think of the confluence of entertainment and politics as dating back to the 1980s at least, with the election of former actor Ronald Reagan – setting the stage for today with a president who starred in the reality TV show, The Apprentice before playing that same role (tough businessman/great deal-maker) on the national stage.

In a podcast with UVM student Eliza Giles Vermont writer Phil Baruth argues that Vermont contributed to this trend with the now-famous 1998 election that pitted Fred Tuttle, retired Peacham dairy farmer turned actor, against conventional candidate Jack McMullen in the Republican primary for US Senate.

In the movie Man with a Plan, Fred captures a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment as his savvy consultants, straight talk and voice coach overcome his opponent’s negative ads and enable him to win by one vote.

But that was the movie. Two years later the same Fred Tuttle ran in the real Republican primary for the US Senate against a real politician – Jack McMullen – who’d recently moved to Vermont and set his sights on defeating Democratic incumbent Senator Patrick Leahy in the general election.

In the ensuing cultural narrative, Fred basically played himself in overalls with a thick Vermont accent - while Jack became a carpet-bagging villain from Massachusetts with a dark moustache and an inability to pronounce the names of Vermont towns.

Their first radio debate was unforgettable.

Jack came prepared to grill Fred on the Middle East, defense spending and more. Then Fred asked Jack how many teats on a cow?

Jack incorrectly guessed six.

Then Fred handed Jack a list of Vermont towns and asked him to pronounce their names.

Jack gave a French spin to C-A-L-A-I-S, making it Calais, not the Vermont-style Calas. And that was the end of the campaign.

It was an election that played like a movie, complete with a cast of stereotypes and a surreal debate. But even so, the moment itself felt authentic as Fred went on to beat Jack in the primary, despite being vastly outspent.

All of which serves as a timely reminder that while politics and entertainment are clearly co-mingling, it’s still possible to cut through the glitter and find the real gold.